Baseball Hall of Famer Rube Waddell Gets His Due at the Curtis Theatre in Brea

Photo courtesy of Joel Beers

Matt Tulley, left as Ty Cobb and Brock Joseph as Rube Waddell in rehearsal for the Curtis Theatre production of “Rube!”

‘Rube! A Play About Baseball, Highly Fictionalized’

WHEN: Sept. 13 – 29, 2019; 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays

WHERE: Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Cr., Brea

TICKETS: $22 students, $27 seniors, $30 adults

INFO: 714-990-7722; curtistheatre.com

When Joel Beers was a boy, his uncle gave him a table-top baseball game that featured player cards from past stars in the sport. On the backs of the cards were brief bios, along with career statistics.

Beers doesn’t remember the exact adjective used to describe the great left-hander Rube Waddell. Possibly zany, eccentric, strange, off-beat or wacky. Whatever it was, it tickled a young boy’s imagination.

“That just stuck with me over the years,” Beers, 53, said. “He was on my radar and I was struck by the number of stories about him. I was always drawn to larger-than-life figures and kind of misfits.”

Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Rube Waddell’s St. Louis Browns baseball card, published by the American Tobacco Company in 1909.

That was Waddell.

Several decades of percolating led to the play “Rube!”, which originally opened in Fullerton in 2003, with a follow-up at the Muckenthaler Center a year later. The play makes its third appearance in Orange County when it opens for the first of three weekends, Friday, Sept. 13, at the Curtis Theatre in Brea.

With the subtitle, “A play about baseball, highly fictionalized,” “Rube!” tells of famed sports writer Grantland Rice on assignment to re-create the life and times of the star pitcher nearly a decade after Waddell died at the age of 37.

Sifting Through the Myth

Baseball, like America, loves its mythology.

Or as Mark Twain may or may not have said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

In the same way America tells stories such as George Washington and the cherry tree, its “pastime” often bends the truth for a good tale.

That tradition goes back to baseball’s faux founding story about Abner Doubleday’s invention of the game in 1839 in the Eden-like, white-bread surroundings of Cooperstown, N.Y. In reality, the game grew out of the British game of rounders and found its roots in the teeming grit of the inner-city, ushered forth not by farm boys emerging from corn fields but immigrant kids – Irish, German, Polish, Italian.

So it should come as no surprise, that the legend of Rube Waddell, who was likely mentally ill and definitely alcoholic, would be recast as the story of a quirky, innocent and child-like marvel. Delightful or deranged, he was indeed marvelous.

Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson, coincidentally a Brea area resident in his youth, once said, “Rube Waddell had more sheer pitching ability that any man I ever saw.”

In a career that lasted only 13 years (1897-1910) and was dotted by suspensions, unexplained absences and worsening alcohol addiction, Waddell stitched together a Hall of Fame career both on and off the field.

As befits America’s sport, baseball is all about stories, both actual and apocryphal. Such as whether Babe Ruth actually “called his shot” in the 1932 World Series. Or if Waddell would run off the mound in mid-game to chase fire engines. Did he wrestle alligators, punch a lion in the face, or a have a contract forbidding he eat crackers in bed?

It is those sepia-tinged tales, the “Field of Dreams” fantasies, that make Waddell seem like baseball’s Peter Pan.

There are troubling stories as well. Did Waddell conspire with gamblers to fake an injury and sit out the 1905 World Series? Was he affected by a psychosis or attention deficit disorder? Because many mental disorders were not studied or diagnosed at the time, that part of Waddell will never be known.

Waddell could be truly heroic. In documented and witnessed stories, Waddell twice waded into the raging and frigid Mississippi River as part of a sandbag brigade to help save the town of Hickman, Kentucky from flooding. He suffered pneumonia afterward, which may have left him susceptible to the tuberculosis that killed him at the age of 37.

For all the antic ballplayer tales over the years, baseball is also a game hidebound by statistics, which are used to argue Hall of Fame creds. Are statistics the literal “measure of the man,” or as others have suggested, merely the extension of lies?

For the stat-heads, the case for Waddell:

– He won only 193 games in his career; 300 wins is often a Hall of Fame benchmark.

– He won 20 games in each of four consecutive years.

– He led the American League in strikeouts six years in a row.

– He was the first player to post back-to-back seasons with 300 strikeouts in 1902-03, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until Sandy Koufax in 1965-66.

– In 1905 he won the “triple crown for pitchers” with the most wins (27), strikeouts (287) and the league’s best ERA (1.48).

– His career ERA was 2.16, ninth best all-time.

– He is also either the first or second pitcher in the majors to record an “immaculate inning,” meaning he struck out the three batters he faced with nine pitches.

But for his off-field hi-jinks, he would be with Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson in the discussion for all-time best lefties.

Then again, but for his off-field hi-jinks, there wouldn’t be a play like “Rube!”

Rice finds himself sifting through Waddell’s crazy life, the fact and fiction, to understand one of baseball’s most mercurial and start-crossed figures.

In Beers’ telling, Waddell blazes through relationships with historical figures such as famed journalist Ida Tarbell, Ty Cobb and the Babe himself. Numerous tales— true, suspect and outlandish—are thrown in.

If that isn’t enough, along the way weighty societal issues of segregation and racism, unionization and players’ rights, women’s suffrage and equality also work their unlikely way into the “Rube!” rubric.

Asked if maybe this is a little too much for one play to encompass, Beers admits his plays sometimes try to cram a lot into a limited space.

“Rube!” is about three of Beers’ passions, baseball, history and journalism, but he says eventually “It becomes a play about stories and who owns them.”

Because of the interplay of fact and fiction, audience members may find themselves scratching their heads and saying, “Wait a minute.”

Throughout “Rube!”, there is a repeating bit of dialogue after outlandish tales about Waddell when the question is posed.

“Is that true?”

“Hell if I know, but it’s a hell of a story.”

Patrick Gwaltney, who is directing the play for the third time, said he had never sought to do a baseball play when he was introduced to the script in 2003. However, he was intrigued by the play’s take on turn-of-the-20th-century social issues, many of which linger today.

Since the play debuted, Gwaltney has had two sons who are now in Little League. The boys, he says, have changed his whole perception about the balance between baseball as a heartless business and a game of passion and innocence.

“I have a totally different relationship with baseball now,” he said. “Have you watched the Little League World Series? It’s the heart of baseball. Rube Waddell is that. He’s my two 11-year-olds on the mound. Pro baseball, I can’t watch that after Little League.”

Brock Joseph, who plays Waddell, calls himself a lifelong baseball fan and says the chance to merge acting and baseball is a treat.

“It’s a rare opportunity, not just to play a real character, but someone who was so eccentric,” he said.

As an actor, Joseph said one of his challenges is to understand that Waddell’s outlandish behavior and naïveté may have been symptomatic of an undiagnosed mental disorder.

“You have to be sensitive to that,” he said.

Beers left it to Joseph to decide how to portray the possible mental issues.

Regardless of his mental acuity, Waddell was a babe in the woods in the cut-throat world of early 20th century America and baseball.

“It’s all conjecture,” Beers said of the after-the-fact mental diagnoses and Waddell’s stability. “The trajectory of the show is such that it’s not essential (to know).”

Rather, the story is about Waddell’s heart, his naïveté and his desire to lift up underdogs. In real life, and in the play, baseball used up and spit out Rube Waddell, who died penniless in a sanitarium suffering from tuberculosis.

But “Rube!” would never let the story end on that note.

There is one last story that takes place in a train station. We won’t give up what happens, but you may find yourself asking, “Wait, is that true?”

Hell if I know, but it’s a hell of a story.

Greg Mellen is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at gregmellen@yahoo.com.